It’s a Sucker’s Game

Schooling Is Not Education

Maybe I haven’t made it clear enough why I wrote Get Your A Out of College. Mainly, it made me feel bad to see my sweet, innocent students trying be play the school game without knowing the hidden rules.   If you take two minutes  – one, if you’re on your toes – you’ll realize that school is a game.

Education can take place in a school but not necessarily because of it.

I dedicated the first edition to “Patty and Kathy [my daughters] who wanted an education and were given schooling.”   I was almost ashamed to be part of this big poker game in which most of the players didn’t have a clue.  The house held all the cards, and it wasn’t eager to share them.  So I wrote the book to give the students a leg up. I was polite, more or less, then.  I don’t feel so generous now.Only the dealer knows the rules.

Only the dealer knows the rules.

(I did have some fun with the title of the book.  I made a big list, my family, and friends tossed in some, but they sounded so teachery.  Finally I was down in the basement one evening in the office I had walled off for myself,  fiddling around with this title and that, when exactly the title I wanted popped into my head from nowhere —  actually, probably from my non-conscious mind, which was probably sick of all the dull titles and sent me the one I chose. I started laughing, ran upstairs and told my wife and called up my friends.  Get your A out of college, kids, and keep on laughing.)


From Get Your  A Out of College  –  with a couple of new thoughts:

The A Book

The A Book


 School and education are not the same thing.

School and education, I have to concede, do sometimes coincide. But education, as you well know, throbs in the veins, sets the nerves tingling, peels the eyeball, sears the intellect, and makes the hair stand up on your neck. It is thrilling, frightening, and alive. It can happen anywhere. But school is an awfully sober and mind-numbing affair.  Far too often, it is plodding through assignments and following rules. It is proper behavior, multiple-choice tests, 500-word themes, teacher monologs, grade-point averages, padded and poorly written texts, competition.

Nonetheless, it’s a game you are expected to play, without knowing the actual rules and goals.


While you may innocently assume the goal is mastery of your subject, here’s what’s really going on:

You are being sorted, ranked, graded, and labeled.

By the time you are out of school, your  A, B, C, D, or F label will be permanent. Not only does the registrar record your label, but your friends, parents, grad school, and employers will think of you that way, too. You may even come to accept it yourself. “Oh, I was always a C student.”

The rule-makers consider that sort of thing reasonable and normal, and most players think so, too.  Even worse, look at what most schools actually  plan into their programs:

Ninety-five percent of the players must be awarded less than A’s.

If you test in the top five per cent you are considered to have succeeded. Everyone else to some degree hasn’t. So there’s a negative cloud floating over the entire campus.  You may have noticed it.  Worse, in some instances, schools themselves may actually cause poor student performance.

And, of course, the rank you fall in is totally artificial.

     Your grade is no predictor of how well you will do in real life.  The sadness is that school doesn’t have to be that way. It is not a law of life. You don’t have to have tests, you don’t have to be graded, you don’t have to compete with your friends, you don’t have to read poorly written textbooks.  You don’t have to give up joy.   In fact, you could toss out the entire structure and do much, much better.  You could look at the night sky.  You could play in mud.  You could look at a flower in a crannied wall. You could ponder things. Absolutely.

You can ponder things.

You can ponder things.

On top of all that negativity, these institutions are well aware that not very much will be learned or retained –  even by A students.

Most teachers know that nine-tenths of what is “taught” will not be retained beyond the final exam.

You can verify this fact by examining the residue in your own mind. Schools accept these depressing results as part of the game. Most teachers are happy if they can occasionally reach three or four students in a class.

It may come as a surprise, then, that it is quite possible for 95 per cent of an average group of college students to achieve success.   I’ll repeat that:

It is quite possible for 95 per cent of an average group of college students to achieve success.

Lots of studies confirm this. Awhile back, Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, for example, designed a school game in which 95 per cent (the top five per cent and the next 90 per cent) achieved the goals specified.  We don’t know  what happened with the other five percent.  They probably went off to Silicon Valley.   Bloom got these results not by watering down the expectations but by changing the learning atmosphere. These experiments expect long-term retention not of a mere one-tenth of what is learned but eight-tenths or better.

 Ninety-five per cent master and retain eight-tenths of what is taught.

Not bad, eh?  Actually retaining eight-tenths of what went on during a semester feels absolutely splendid.  Wouldn’t be great if you had that experience all the time, every year?  Of course it would.  And that can go on all your life.  Sounds like The Realms of Gold to me!

South Shore Path

And if you want to start getting the drop on all this, you came to the right place.

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